The Trouble With May Amelia by Jennifer L. Holm; Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 204 pages ($15.99). Ages 8 to 12.
Holm vividly evokes the hard life of Finnish pioneers who settled on the Nasel River in Washington State in 1900 through the unforgettable first-person narration of May Amelia Jackson, the youngest child in a family of seven boys. (This is the sequel to Newbery Honor Book "Our Only May Amelia.") Her family considers May Amelia an irritation (or worse) when she burns dinner or stomps in fish guts with her new boots or gets trapped in the school outhouse by an angry bull, but May Amelia has a way of surprising everyone. She makes a most intrepid narrator and her observations are often funny, but Holm doesn't spare the grim details of this miserably difficult life: her little sister is dead, the barn burns down, a brother loses his hand in a logging accident, a neighbor suffering from dementia is run over by a wagon. The novels are based on the life of Holms' great-grandfather, who lost his farm to a scam artist and this one includes other fact-based bizarre events -- including a notorious murder case. Holm, creator of the Baby Mouse graphic novels, offers vivid characters against a colorful and realistic backdrop of pioneers battling the elements to make a go of farming.
-- Jean Westmoore
The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak; Bellevue Literary Press, 192 pages ($14.95)
Novels set during World War I possess a desolation, violence and a desperate longing to return to life as it was lived before the war. "The Sojourn" was inspired by the life of Andrew Krivak's grandfather, Josef Vinich, born in a Colorado mining town in the late 1800s. After his mother was killed by a train and his father wrongfully accused of murder (events that confirmed the suspicions of his Austro-Hungarian relatives about America's Wild West), father and son returned to the Magyar village where Josef's father was born to start anew.
Fifteen years later, Josef became a sharpshooter in the Austrian army and was taken prisoner by the Italians. After his release in 1918, he began the long walk home. He saved a pregnant gypsy girl who had been raped by soldiers, and together they tried to start a peaceful life. The novel is a beautiful tale of persistence and dogged survival.
-- Los Angeles Times
Eyes Wide Open by Andrew Gross; Morrow, 352 pages ($25.99)
Respected surgeon Jay Erlich receives a history lesson in the aftermath of inhumanity during the course of Andrew Gross' thrilling fifth novel. (Gross became a best-selling author as one of James Patterson's co-authors on six novels.)
Jay was raised as the privileged youngest son of a wealthy businessman. His charmed life includes a successful career, a happy marriage and two bright children.
Life has taken a different route for his half-brother, Charlie. Charlie and his wife, Gabby, are both diagnosed bipolar and have a history of drug abuse and alcoholism. Although Jay often sends them cash, they are dependent on the state of California for their apartment and meager income. Tragedy hits when the body of their son Evan is found at the bottom of a cliff. Although Evan had inherited Charlie's mental problems, the family refuses to believe their 21-year-old son committed suicide.
But clues from the scene are similar to those found at other recent deaths across the country and eerily echo a chain of 1970s murders involving cult leader Russell Houvnanian. For nearly 40 years, Russell has been in prison for those decades-old murders that resemble the crimes by Charles Manson and his followers. For several months during the 1970s, Jay's brother lived at Russell's compound.
In "Eyes Wide Open," Gross expertly shows how evil's influence can fester through the years before returning even more destructive than before. Gross' vivid storytelling makes each aspect of "Eyes Wide Open" creepily realistic, including the chilling ending.
-- McClatchy Newspapers